Could A Video Game Start A Religion?

Could A Video Game Start A Religion?

I’m a confirmed believer in the church of video games, a sect whose faith has been rewarded over the past decade, as games have sailed easily over the hurdles that have been placed in front of them by the apostates. No one really disputes anymore that games can make us cry, make us laugh, teach our children, train our soldiers, or advance political arguments. Is there anything games can’t do?

For the first time in memory, I’m wondering if there’s a limit. A recent email from a listener to my podcast, Shall We Play a Game?, posed this question: “Assume that a video game franchise is going to be the founding document of a major world religion. What series do you think would be best suited to the task?” My co-host, JJ Sutherland, and I discussed the matter in detail on this podcast (starting at about the 28:45 mark), but here’s my too-long-didn’t-listen answer: None of them.

More often than not, video games are about conflict and power, or about agency and self-fulfillment, rather than selflessness and love. More plausibly, the listener asked this question: “Do you think that interactive media is up to the task of imparting spiritual and moral themes, as well as a sense of religious community, that people could take seriously in their real lives? Why or why not?”

Yes, of course I think interactive media are up to that task. Yet it’s striking how rarely video games — they’re more than 50 years old now — have tried to engage with religious themes, especially for a medium so often fascinated by questions of good and evil, and the end of days.

The only game that brought me to a feeling that even approximates the sublimity of a religious awakening or a spiritual transformation is thatgamecompany’s Journey. And I’m capable of seeing transcendent beauty in Mad Max: Fury Road.

JJ, my co-host, went with Planescape: Torment as a game that contains moral lessons that might be used for religious instruction. A listener emailed and suggested Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar as the video game equivalent of a religious text. “The whole point of the game is not obliterating enemies, but living a life based on the ‘eight virtues’ — honesty, compassion, valor, justice, sacrifice, honour, spirituality, and humility,” he wrote. (We discussed his email on this episode, at about the 39:30 mark.) On our newest podcast episode, we read an email from M. Joshua Cauller, who writes for the website Gamechurch, about that website’s annual lists of Games That Jesus Loves.

To me, the original questioner is not looking for a video game that merely presents instruction on how to lead the good life. Rather, he wants — or maybe I want — a game that creates the ineffable feeling of openness and connection that people can feel from church, from nature, from art.

The sensation of “flow” created by the best puzzle games may be the closest analogue, the feeling of disappearing into a game and becoming one with it. Ian Bogost, the game designer and critic, writes in his forthcoming book, How to Talk About Video Games, that abstract puzzle games like Drop7, Orbital, and Tetris connect players to the “mathematical sublime.”

Is Tetris the closest video games have come to touching the face of God? It does seem to bring players into contact with the infinite. As Bogost writes:

“The sublime is just the opposite of cold formalism: a feeling of overwhelm, of vastness, of abundance. The sublime helps us see the limits of our own reason, showing us the instability and immensity of the world. … We look for masterpieces in games by comparing them with familiar works of representational art, like film, painting, and literature. But the sublime is found elsewhere: in architecture, in nature, in weather.”

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Illustration by Sam Woolley


  • All other commentary aside – and this being an article themed on religion with an open comment section, there will be a lot of it – the main difference I can see between video games and religion is that video games actually exist.

  • Not long after the first expansion in Everquest, I started the Church of Bob, who was the Creator of the Iksar, a playable race of lizardmen. Turns out the guy that did the artwork was actually called Bob… And they ended up putting him into one of the Planes in the 2nd expansion. Guys real name was Bob Painter, NPC was Bob the Painter.

    At one point the Church of Bob spanned 3 or 4 games, with the standard Hail, Bob being shouted across games. Was fun while it lasted.

  • Anything, anything, could be a religion. Depends how obsessive and messed up the individuals involved are. I am ashamed to admit that when I was younger and questioning my Christianity (I am now 100% atheist) I ended up becoming religiously devoted to an anime. Yeah, it sounds silly, but to me it was very important. Ended up coming up with prayers and rituals and all sorts of shit. Funnily enough, my devout Christian mother tried to quash my beliefs by claiming that it “wasn’t real” and that it was just “made up”. Look who’s talking now haha.

  • I agree, none.

    There is definitely a big running gag of deifying aspects or people related to a game for shits and giggles and some communities show similar traits to cult behaviour.

    On the subject though, you could easily argue that any popular fandom has themes and behaviours that mirror certain aspects of religion. I mean it’s not uncommon for some religious groups to target those fandoms. Pokemon, Harry Potter etc all denounced by various churches.

  • I’m sure there was a time when no-one thought a sci-fi novel would start a religion, but look at Scientology.

  • I think we live in a time when it’s near impossible for anyone to successfully start a legit religion. You can rope in people willing to believe that you’re the messiah but you can’t move past that first generation because even by generation six the man hasn’t faded enough to merge with the myth. Everything is so documented that it can’t really evolve like the major religions of today did.

  • I think yes, it can – but not right now.

    Personally, I think that religion has come about as it is today thanks to the stories people told millennia ago. These stories became tales, then myths, then legends – finally, collectively, a religion. The same kinds of tales we might tell today, in any format – music, film, games, whatever. It wouldn’t surprise me if in actual fact, the bible was akin to a fantasy novel, with just the right amount of spin to make it sound like it could be true.

    Several thousand years from now, some of the stories we tell today could inspire the same devout fanaticism and single minded faith that relates to religion as we know it today. The only difference between then and now is we are able to record everything much better. Will the future people be able to tell the truth from the stories, thanks to that ability? Who knows.

    If this kind of thing does happen, I just hope it inspires the best in people, and isn’t some horrible belief that holds similar problems to the ones we face now – ancient notions of racism/sexism/elitism/ageism/every-ism.

  • Well, if a con man, a science fiction writer and a movie trilogy can start religions, i don’t why a video game couldn’t.

  • Terms makes you a cog in the great machine…and eventually you fail. An interesting life lesson.

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